Violence and Instinct


August first, 1980  I quit dreaming and yapping and turned phototropism (the tendency of plants to turn toward the sun) into my own private mission statement. Translation: I moved to Florida, in Jacksonville  Beach. I found a second story duplex on the corner of Second Street and Thirteenth Avenue North in Jax Beach (as the locals refer to it), east of A1A, devoted my life to surfing twelve hours a day and return to my purpose of living in the sun and salt water. A job tending bar was shelved until I began to run out of money, at which point I discovered it could be a difficult niche for me to crack, despite my credentials and ability.

To make shift I took a job offered by ORC - Oil Recovery Company: cleaning the fuel tanks on the USS Forestall (I built models of this ship when I was six), which made coal mining seem both clean and fun, by comparison. For an indentured servitude, it paid well. I went to work at 5:30 in the morning - long before daylight - and returned at seven thirty in the evening: sweaty, filthy, bone tired and profoundly pissed off. Here I was, my living dream in the sun, only to become a troglodyte.

One evening as dusk crept over the horizon I walked the fifty yards to the beach and gazed, slack jawed, at long perfect lines wrapping in from the south. A tropical storm beyond the Windward islands had sent an early Christmas present in the form of a five foot ground swell, much more akin to a well made surf movie than the usual lackluster fare here. (Don’t get me wrong: it’s sooo much better than Atlanta.) Sprinting back to the house I grabbed my board and wax, breaking a few land speed records getting back to the ocean. I fought my way outside, grabbed a warmup wave, and watched the sky get darker by the second. One more and I’d be doing this by braille. Out where the sea bleeds into the sky, I watched a set wave begin it’s final charge forward.

This is the swell I will always remember as the one: where instinct and muscle and memory all came together, to surpass my dreams and recollections and fantasies. Paddling into the wave, I felt us sync together and my board awakened with a life of it’s own. I pushed up beneath my shoulders, slid my feet beneath me and extended into the trough, compressed at the peak and accelerated down the line. A long section collapsed in front of me, but I unweighted and popped over, flying out the back with an exhilarated scream. It was too dark to continue, and I would be a fool to try. Always try to leave on a high note - perfection if possible - and it would be tough to surpass that ride. Especially in the dark.

I quit that godawful job the very next day, and never looked back. The coming autumn - which is replaced with hurricane season in Florida - was idyllic, replete with waves and explorations and new beginnings. I took a job tending bar at Jerry’s Surfing Turtle, located at the foot of the pier. The cartoon image you have in your mind is accurate, I can certify without benefit of a Vulcan mind-meld, and it gives deeper layers and new meaning to the term ‘dive’. This was the first - and last, and only - place I worked where there was a wooden, lead filled billy club behind the bar for riot control. I flattered myself with the thought if I were forced to use it, I’d go for the back of the legs to minimize trauma.

That first winter was strange. In premonition of a Don Henley song: nobody on the road, nobody on the beach - drifts of sand, very like snowdrifts, piled up on the west side of the curb. I half expected to see tumbleweeds cart-wheeling down the deserted First Street. I was essentially paid to breathe behind the bar, where six people was an honest-to-god rush. I amused myself by doctoring the popcorn, which was freely disseminated by me, with liberal doses of Tobasco. I was warned against this by the manager, after he visited the lavatory and discovered an unexpected after effect to my culinary experiment. My suggestion to wash his hands before urination was not received in the spirit in which it was offered. A good night’s take was twenty dollars, but the cost of living was negligible compared with Atlanta, so it balanced out.

One night when spring was just a glimmer on the curve of the evening sky, I was almost alone. Only Ronnie, the utility guy, was playing solitary pool when a stranger came through the door. Tending bar incubates a radar for wackos that has never failed me, and psychosis blew off this guy in cold waves. He got a Busch, stiffed me - which I expected - and slammed down a quarter on Ronnie’s table, even though there were two tables empty. If you really like fights, open a bar with a pool table.

I was rereading Twain or Tolkien and oblivious to the outside world, when a flurry of activity caught my attention. The wacko swung his pool cue like a baseball bat, breaking it in half across Ronnie’s nose. Now my co-worker lay in a spreading puddle of blood, the psycho crouched over his inert form, back to me, grunting inarticulate threats and curses.

Without thinking - this is absolutely against my nature and better judgement - I came out from the enclosed bar with the billy in hand and brought it down hard on top of the pool table, just behind the crouching lunatic. “Everybody COOL IT!” I roared in my deepest basso profundo. The sharp crack of wood against wood split the air like electricity, and the guy whirled to face me, cocking the cue remnant for business. I slapped him across the side of the head with the club: there was the sick sound of a watermelon hit with a sledgehammer, and he hit the floor like a pot roast.

My adrenal glands exploded, I’m pretty sure. I grabbed him by his hair, dragged his limp carcass across the floor, through the door and kicked him into the gutter on First Street. I was breathing like I’d run a marathon and snarled down at his inanimate form “You come in here again, this will look like a first date.

And then, as it always does, my central nervous system collapsed. Oh, god I thought, what if I’ve killed him? I felt for a pulse and was relieved to feel sluggish movement. Ronnie was coming around, and pulled a bandana from somewhere I’d rather not think about to smear the blood covering his face, creating an oddly pleasing finger-painting effect.”You OK?” I asked, softly.

He nodded slowly, eyes on the ground.   

I gazed around the deserted bar, poured myself a shot of Grand Marnier, stumped to the entrance with the keys and locked the door.

Fuck this,” I muttered.

I sat down heavily and waited for calm.




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